Thursday, January 29, 2015

Captain Bligh: Chronically Misrepresented

Bligh, as he appeared in 1792,
Not exactly looking like a homicidal maniac
In the late 18th century, a plan was hatched to introduce breadfruit trees from the Polynesian Islands to the Caribbean to feed the growing population, both slave and free, that worked the vast sugar plantations. Today, breadfruit flourishes in the Caribbean largely due to one man, then a thirty-three year old lieutenant in the Royal Navy known as William Bligh.
Almost everyone knows about the Mutiny on the Bounty. Whenever ‘mutiny’ is mentioned, ‘Bounty’ is slapped on, too. The story is now used as a symbol of rebellion against oppression, a poster child of Navy brutality, a struggle between the aristocracy and the common man. In many ways, it’s true; there was a rebellion, life at sea was brutal, and it was a struggle between the aristocracy and the common man…though not in the way that you are thinking, because William Bligh was the common man and Fletcher Christian was the aristocracy.
Bligh at twenty-one, as Cook's Sailing Master
William Bligh was in the Navy since he was seven. He served as an able-seaman, when there were no vacancies for a midshipman, slowly working his way through the ranks. Because of his brilliance in navigation, at the age of twenty-one, he served as Captain James Cook’s Sailing Master in his last voyage of discovery in the South Seas. It is from Bligh that we have one of the most complete accounts of the death of Captain Cook in Hawaii; Bligh was nearly killed himself, but instead of allowing his men to scatter like the marines assigned to guard Captain Cook, he held his ground until reinforcements came from the ship.
William Bligh seemed the ideal man to lead an expedition to collect breadfruit. He knew the area, he was a gifted navigator and cartographer, and was something of an explorer and naturalist as well. So, on 23 December, 1787, the young lieutenant set out, in command of a tiny ship named the Bounty, forty-six officers and men, and a friend of the family, Fletcher Christian, as Master’s Mate.
Thursday October Christian,
Fletcher Christian's oldest son
Fletcher Christian is something of an enigma. He was descended on his father’s side from Manx aristocracy. His was born on the pleasant Moorland Close estate and despite his mother’s irresponsibility with money, his upbringing would have been far superior to anything Bligh experienced as a child. Early in the 1780s, Bligh, ten years older, met Fletcher Christian, and took him on two voyages, meticulously teaching him navigation. It was on Bligh’s recommendation that Christian sailed as Master’s Mate on the Bounty.
The most accurate replica of the Bounty, from the 1984 movie,
currently resides in Hong Kong. The other replica, like its namesake,
is at the bottom of the sea.
Bligh has often been described as a sadistic commander, ruling with an iron fist and meting out terrible punishments right and left. He is universally depicted in movies by little men, ten or twenty years too old, with slightly neurotic performances, in command of replica ships twice as big as the real one. In reality, Bligh hardly ever punished his men, even allowing them to sleep during the hectic attempted rounding of the Horn in the only dry place aboard the ship: his tiny, closet-like sleeping cabin in the stern. The Bounty was a little ship, less than ninety feet long, and in a time when the average seaman stood at 5’4”, Bligh was a respectable 5’8”. Fletcher Christian was an inch taller, probably due to his better nutrition as a child.
Black sand in Tahiti
All in all, the Bounty had an uneventful voyage to the South Seas; one man died of an infection after he was bled by the drunk doctor, but otherwise, morale was good. On their navy-ordered route, storms lashed them during their attempt to double the Horn, but Bligh turned back, knowing that he was beaten, and sailed around the Cape of Good Hope instead. He managed not to lose a man in the storms when other ships, sailing the same waters that year, lost half their compliment.
The local wildlife
On the 26 October, 1788 the Bounty let down her anchor off the beautiful black sand beaches of Tahiti. For the next five months, with the help of the native chief and his people, the English sailors transplanted breadfruit trees into pots and put them in specially built containers in the great cabin of the Bounty. Bligh, when not overseeing the undertakings, was talking to the chief about his customs, surveying the harbor, and, because he was an artist, taking note of the local wildlife. Despite all his work, he noticed that his crew was getting on famously with the locals and by the time the Bounty set sail for England, a number of them were breaking out with venereal disease.
Maori Chief from New Zealand,
colored engraving 1784, copied from a painting
Bligh had a notorious temper and took most of his frustration out on Fletcher Christian, who seemed to be crossing him at every turn. Bligh’s sailors were busy getting tattoos and deserting, rather than potting breadfruit trees, and Bligh flogged them more on land than he had at sea. The native chief wasn’t helping any, either; Bligh reported that, “The chiefs have taken such a liking to our people that they have rather encouraged their stay among them than otherwise, and even made promises of large possessions.”
Captain Bligh & Co being set adrift
by the Mutinous Mister Christian
Everyone is probably familiar how, a few weeks into the return voyage, Bligh woke up to a dancing lantern over his head and a bayonet at his throat. He was taken on deck, and as the sun slowly rose, he and eighteen of his loyal crewmen were herded into the ship’s longboat and set adrift, to watch the Bounty sail off into the sunrise. For many, this is the end of the story; Fletcher Christian sailed off, first to Tahiti, to pick up wives and drop off sixteen of the mutineers, then to Pitcairn Island, with the remaining eight mutineers and many Tahitian men and women. Fletcher Christian’s ultimate fate is unknown, except that by 1808, only one mutineer was left alive; the rest had either murdered each other, or died of disease.
Captain Bligh's coconut, carved with the words,
"the cup I eat my miserable allowance out of"
For Bligh, the story had only begun. He was in a badly over-loaded open boat, with eighteen of his crew, limited food supplies, no maps and only an outdated quadrant and a pocket compass, 3,618 miles from civilization. The journey that followed is one of the most remarkable and little known in history; they withstood storms, hunger and cannibalistic islanders. Bligh, instead of being petty, was meticulously fair with the rations, often giving more to the sicker members of the crew to keep them alive. Bligh, himself, often went without sleep and most amazingly of all, was able to navigate accurately all the way to the coast of Australia with faulty and make-shift instruments and nothing but the maps in his head. On top of that, despite his emaciated condition, Bligh continued to draw maps of the coast, even discovering islands that had never before been seen by Europeans.
An artist's (optimistic) idea of what Bligh
and his crew looked like when they arrived in Timor
Forty-seven days after the mutiny, Bligh and his starving crew stumbled into Kupang, Timor. The first thing he did was write to his wife in heart-broken words, “Know then my own Dear Betsy, that I have lost the Bounty...” However, he had reason to be glad; despite the horrific conditions during the open-boat voyage, he had only lost one man who had disobeyed orders and was stoned to death by cannibals on Tofua.
Peter Heywood as a Post-Captain
Bligh returned to England a hero. It wasn’t until the fateful voyage of the HMS Pandora and the collection of the sixteen mutineers from Tahiti, that his name was blackened. One of the mutineers brought back for trial was a young midshipman named Peter Heywood, who, like Fletcher Christian, had family ties in Manx nobility. The Heywood family, uninterested in being related to a mutineer, managed to turn the story around during the trial to get Peter Haywood acquitted. But it wasn’t until the Bounty trilogy of the 1930s, and the subsequent movies based on them, that the story became so infamous.
A still from the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty
Was Bligh to blame for the mutiny? Had life under him become so terrible that the crew had to mutiny? Bligh was known to be thin-skinned and self-righteous, but he was also forward-thinking; always concerned about his men’s health and welfare. Instead of being a brutal maniac, as depicted in popular culture, Bligh’s weakness seems to have been his lenient approach to discipline. Bligh went on to command other ships and other men, playing a key role in winning the Battle of Copenhagen, and even becoming governor of New South Wales, before retiring as Vice-Admiral of the Blue. He suffered two more mutinies under his command; one, which was fleet wide, and the other, in Australia, when he tried to root out corruption.

Tahiti Revisited by William Hodges 1776 
The voyage of the Bounty might have been a disaster, but Bligh had a second chance to do it right. In 1791, a year after returning to England, Bligh, in command of HMS Providence and accompanied by the smaller HMS Assistant, returned to Tahiti, collected his breadfruit and successfully introduced the species to the Caribbean.


PS: In 2010, four men recreated Bligh’s amazing open boat voyage across the pacific with limited instruments and finished only one day over schedule. For a scholarly look at the events surrounding the mutiny, read The Bounty by Caroline Alexander. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Pirates: What they were and what they weren’t

Jim Hawkins and Israel Hands from Treasure Island
Mostly thanks to Treasure Island, when the word ‘pirate’ is spoken today, we instantly conjure up a picture of flintlock pistols, the Caribbean, ostrich feathers, eye patches and the Jolly Roger. Amazingly enough, pretty much everything we think we know about pirates sprang from that one book published in 1883. Things like the black spot, one legged men with parrots, treasure maps, ‘X’ marks the spot, and fifteen men on a dead man’s chest (how can you get fifteen men on a dead man’s chest?) came from the spectacular imagination of Robert Lewis Stevenson. A few details were filled in by other people, of course, like Daniel Defoe, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, J.M. Barrie and Howard Pyle. Hollywood actors did their bit, too; Errol Flynn was swashbuckling and  Robert Newton made the West Country accent of southern England and Cornwall synonymous with pirates (eg: Arrg Matey!).
Julius Caesar
Unsurprisingly, pretty much all of this is myth and legend. Piracy never was (and still isn’t) anything like the movies and is such a general crime that nobody can say “it started here”. The Romans dealt with pirates in their day (Julius Caesar was even held for ransom a couple of times)…no Jolly Rogers fluttered from their mastheads, but merchant ships could still tell when one was coming by their characteristic green or blue sails. The Vikings were pirates in every sense of the word; when they weren’t moving in, they were taking loot and capturing European slaves to sell into slavery in the Far East.
Burning of the USS Philadelphia
The Barbary Pirates (or Ottoman corsairs) who operated out of Northern Africa, regularly raided Europe, as far north as England, Ireland and even Iceland, capturing whole towns to sell into slavery in the Middle East. They weren’t checked for hundreds of years until Thomas Jefferson sent the young United States Navy to the Mediterranean to take them on.
Pretty much anywhere there is a source of wealth, there are pirates. It’s highway robbery without the highway. And as shown by the Vikings, or the Barbary Pirates, piracy and slavery go hand-in-hand, even the Cilician pirates that pestered the Romans traded slaves. John Hawkins, a 16th century British Naval commander dabbled in piracy until he found a far more lucrative option…the African slave trade. It was the African slave trade that turned both sides of the Atlantic into pirate waters. Merchant captains picked up slaves in Africa, then traded them for the valuable goods produced by the New World like sugar and tobacco. Pirates of all nationalities preyed on them in between…and sometimes piracy wasn’t entirely illegal. Navies were small, so during wars, governments issued licenses called ‘letters-of-marque’ to ship captains, allowing them to prey on the shipping of the enemy. This turned these captains into ‘Privateers’, free-lance extensions of the navy.
Rose Hall Great House, Jamaica; houses like this one
were built all over the Caribbean by plantation owners
So, to boil it down, pirates didn’t make people walk the plank (there are a few isolated instances of it), they didn’t always believe women were bad luck aboard ship (women were actually considered better navigators than men), they didn’t wear eye patches any more often than anyone else (there is some speculation they wore them to improve their night vision). Pirates didn’t stay in one place, either, they made the rounds. The Mediterranean, the Red Sea, Indian Ocean and the China Seas were stiff with the same pirates that sailed the Caribbean. Piracy was a risky, dangerous business, completely lacking in glamour; pirates like Henry Morgan and Edward Low were notorious for their deliberate cruelty. Only a handful of professional pirates made a fortune, the rest spent it all, or died of illness or execution (Henry Every was one of the only pirates on record who managed to escape and retire with his loot).
However…not everything we think of today in association with pirates is myth.
Captain Kidd giving a dark look
If you like flintlock pistols, skulls and crossbones, pirate brotherhoods and sunken treasure, there is a period that spanned the 17th and 18th centuries that might fulfill your piracy dreams. It lasted about eighty years and is associated with the ‘famous’ pirates. Captain Kidd was hanging around Long Island during this time and Henry Morgan, pirate turned pirate chaser, carved out a reputation so infamous he was knighted and made governor of Jamaica. But within this period, there was a smaller one; it only lasted ten years, but it is called ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. Pretty much everything real that we associate with pirates occurred during this time.
The Brig La Grace is a replica of the sort of ship pirates would
have sailed; small, fast and relatively easy to handle
It happened just at the end of the War of Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War as it was referred to in the Americas. When the fighting ended in 1714, privateer captains suddenly found themselves out of a job and when the Royal Governor of Jamaica, Lord Archibald Hamilton, started handing out secret letters-of-marque to form a Jacobite Navy (yes, he was Scottish and yes, he hated the English), things spun out of control. Big pirate names crawled out of the woodwork: Henry Jennings, Charles Vane, Samuel Bellamy, and Edward England…and before long, Stede Bonnet, “Calico” Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Bartholomew "Black Bart” Roberts, Edward Low, William Fly, and most infamous of all, Edward Teach…soon to be known as Blackbeard.
Port Royal, Jamaica, went from a pirate haven to a
ghost town after an earthquake caused it to fall into the habor
Since Henry Morgan, with the help of a cooperative earthquake, had cleaned up Jamaica at the end of the last century, these new pirates set up shop in Nassau. The few hundred occupants of the town were outnumbered by more than a thousand pirates and the whole island of New Providence was declared a Pirate Republic. It was during this time that pirate flags were occasionally flown…and most of the time, they had nothing to do with a skull and crossbones…only "Black Sam" Bellamy and Edward England flew the classic ‘Pirate Flag’, the other flags consisted of red skeletons and crossed cutlasses. In fact, the only thing they had in common was the black ground, which developed from the ‘Black Flag’ of no quarter every ship carried.
Calico Jack's Flag
These pirates set to work on the rich shipping in the Caribbean…there was the Spanish treasure fleet and ships of the Dutch, Danish, French and Swedish West India companies. The records of ships captured in the 18th century are suddenly littered with the names of pirates. But, as mentioned before, the Golden Age of Piracy didn’t last long. A few, like William Fly, held on until 1726, but most of the pirates, like “Black Sam” Bellamy, Blackbeard and Calico Jack, only had two or three years of pirating under their belts before the Royal Navy hunted them down between 1717 and 1720 (Blackbeard supposedly jumped overboard and swam around his ship three times after his head was chopped off). Governor Woodes Rogers arrived in the Bahamas and offered pardons all around and Governor Hamilton, the fellow who started it all, was brought back to London in chains where he was acquitted…after all, his big brother was the Duke of Hamilton. You don’t mess with a Duke.
A Desert Island
But, despite being only about ten years long, that period after Queen Anne’s War has had a massive impact on pirate lore. Thousands of years of global piracy have paraded grandly past, yet we’re stuck on flintlock pistols and islands in the Caribbean. We have ‘talk like a pirate day’ and romanticize about how ‘free’ pirates were. Gentleman pirates swing on convenient ropes like Tarzan while wooing the fair maid. In most of the depictions, pirates are so busy adventuring that they hardly have time for piracy at all.
As far as I know, pirates did not look like this
The dirty, disease-ridden, brutal reality of piracy is often overlooked for ostrich feathers and elegant coats. Piracy hasn’t changed since the world began and it’s still practiced as much today as it was during ‘The Golden Age’. The ships are made out of fiberglass now and the perpetrators don’t have eye patches or cutlasses, but they are still pirates, still capturing ships and holding them for ransom. As much as I want to buckle some swash every time I watch The Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s important to keep in mind that almost nothing in the movies depicts reality. 

If you’re interested in knowing more, a good place to start is the book that opened my eyes, Under the Black Flag by Erik Christian Haugaard. It’s short and it’s a children’s book…but those aren’t marks against it. 
PS: None of the pictures are mine